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July 29, 2008 7:42 pm
While making Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the film’s star Johnny Depp and its director Gore Verbinski hit on the idea of a covers album devoted to traditional pirate songs and sea shanties. Hal Willner, a veteran organiser of tribute albums, was charged with bringing the scheme to fruition and the result was Rogue’s Gallery, a diverting double CD released in 2006 featuring artists such as Sting, Lou Reed and Bono.
The production’s staging in London was notably less starry. At three and a half hours, it was also drawn-out. Before the end, mutinous members of the audience were jumping ship and heading for the exit. The romance of the high seas had been replaced by another, less glamorous aspect of the mariner’s life – desperate boredom.
First up was Baby Gramps, an antique American singer-songwriter whose face was almost completely obscured by a bushy white beard and battered hat. Primitive gurgles and groans emanated from the beard: Baby Gramps was singing. The song was “Cape Cod Girls”, once sung by whalemen leaving Nantucket for the Antarctic, but the antic rendition did it few favours. Pitched between slapstick and musical archaeology, it introduced a tonal uncertainty that bedevilled the evening.
Willner, dressed as a pirate and introducing the cast in the deadpan manner of a bad comedian, didn’t help matters. The problem was compounded by the choice of guests, whose affinity with the sea was enigmatic. Tim Robbins (pictured above) is a fine actor but why the Oscar-winner was on stage singing about hauling on a bowline defeated reason. Neil Hannon, leader of Britpop ironists The Divine Comedy, was inappropriately arch, while the presence of Chris Difford, creator of bittersweet observational pop with Squeeze, might have made sense had pirates been famed for writing wry songs about life at sea, which on the whole they weren’t.
There was the odd gem. The British folk singer Norma Waterson delivered an achingly sad lament about lost love, “Bay of Biscay”. David Thomas of cult art-rockers Pere Ubu turned “What Do We Do With a Drunken Sailor” into a lurching, Captain Beefheart-style squall of noise, complete with a drunken Shane MacGowan blowing a harmonica. Such bright moments merely served to emphasise the lack of illumination elsewhere.
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